As the days get longer and winter hits life support, the real high school hockey season can begin.
Two of the local River Rival teams, Newburyport (12-3-5) and Triton (12-8-1), are headed to the state tournament beginning tomorrow and are looking to make an extended stay of it.
Seeded fifth in Division 2 North, Newburyport has seen a return to form after last year’s slow start. The Clippers won the Cape Ann League for the first time in coach Paul Yameen’s 10-year career, defeated Triton twice and posted ties against major non-league powerhouses Canton (15-3-2), Braintree (17-4-1), Franklin (13-7-2) and Beverly (18-1-1) along the way.
“I want to play as many good teams as I can through the course of the year,” said Yameen. “Sometimes it hurts you as far as the seedings go, but for the most part, I think it makes you better.”
Now in their ninth consecutive year making the tournament, the Clippers have drawn 12th seed Concord-Carlisle in the first round at the Stoneham Arena tomorrow at 8 p.m.
“I saw them play a couple of weeks ago,” Yameen said of Concord-Carlisle. “They’re a good team. They come from a very good league. They played a real solid schedule. So, we’re going to have our hands full, and we’re going to need to play three solid periods. Anything else is not going to be good enough.”
Over in Byfield, the 10th-seeded Vikings are getting ready to take on seventh-seed Winthrop at Salem State tomorrow at 5 p.m.
“I feel real good,” Vikings coach Drew Wile said. “I think that, as a team, we are definitely battle-tested. It’s a clean slate for everybody. I think that, even though we were in a 1-3 stretch in our last four games, there should really be no surprises for us. Winthrop is a lot like us. They played a tough schedule. They’re very well-coached, I know the staff over there. But it’s going to be a tough game, no question.”
“In order for us to win, we have to play damn near perfect,” Wile said. “And we know that going into this thing. We play better when we play with a lead. We are a much different team when we play with a lead. So I think that’s going to be the key, coming out of the gate really quickly.”
Triton has gone to the tournament every year Wile has led them (2007, 2011, 2012, 2013). This year, the Vikes have been strong up front, thanks in large part to 15 goal-scorer Tucker Johnson.
“Obviously he’s going to be looked at as the guy they’ve got to shut down,” Wile said of Johnson. “In the last five games, he’s picked it up tremendously. He’s averaged at least two points a game. Tucker needs to establish himself early in the game. He can’t take a couple of shifts off.”
Newburyport, on the other hand, has been Triton’s polar opposite, receiving tremendous support from the back, namely goalie Alex Buckley, who sports five shutouts and a 1.45 GAA.
“Buckley, in my opinion, is the MVP of the league,” said Wile. “He’s had that caliber of a season and can bail you out of situations when he’s on. There are not too many that are better.”
“Our hopes are not solely on our goalie’s shoulders,” said Yameen, who always stresses a team effort, every game. “I think, when we play a good team defense, we’re a pretty good team.”